Another old piece... I'm slowly releasing all of my backlog of work and I'm surprised at how often I wrote about Peckham. I grew up in Nunhead, so Peckham was my local everything: shopping (Safeway), stationery and toys (Woolworths), cinema (Peckham Premier) and fast food (McD's, KFC, and later Burger King). I have a lot of fond memories, and it's shocking that though I first wrote this in 2015/2016ish, nothing has changed. In fact, Peckham's destruction has progressed to worrying levels. I was angry when I wrote this and I still am.
Let me walk you through Peckham. Get off the P12 from Nunhead Lane at the stop by the UCKG Pentecostal Church. If you want to pop in, please do as someone is willing to heal your cancer for free. Along the road is a mess of shops with gaping bewildered snapper on display and tropical vegetables, cornmeal, fufu and hard dough bread. The shops are run by Arabs who like to try patois even though most of their produce is African. Next to every food market is a hair salon run by Yinka, or Funke, or Tola, and then there’s a random rasta who forgot that Peckham is Little Lagos. Once upon a time white people ran these streets before some sort of immigration spark had them hiding back in Nunhead, East Dulwich (if they could afford it), Camberwell and beyond. The streets are busy and wet, slightly slimy from fish scales and salt, and grimy from exhaust pipes. Big Red buses trudge along the roads in a never ending line, like some hell train, a scar in the tarmac.
Keep walking and the time passes. Sunsets glow over the old wreckage of the gutted Allied Carpets, the sun rises as your body changes with the seasons, looming further towards the sky and into teenage years. The business of childhood is gone and now you can see Peckham as something else: poverty, knife crime, a couple of shootings; murmurs of gang activity. And no white people. People get on by, though. They laugh and they dance, they argue in Morrison’s Supermarket; they rush onto the buses, they wait and yawn for their newly ordered table in Argos. The library is filled with inner - city school kids who are trying to leave the ghetto, they love ‘endz’ but would rather own a car; they study to grate against the teachers from Dulwich.
Still older. Your parents have divorced and you moved far away from Peckham ages ago. You’ve forgotten what it looks like so on the P12 you get, outside UCKG which has had an amazing makeover thanks to the offering plate; the budget Netto is now an Asda; the streets are cleaner and for the first time the shops are no longer homogenously red and yellow and white; they’ve been interrupted, separated, severed down the middle, by a cafe.
There are cafes now. And a place in the back streets, behind the grey poverty, called the Village. Angelic people live over there, rarely mingling with the veteran Peckhamites to stay instead within the comfort of vintage bookshops, bars with wooden tables outside, cafes and independent space. But they’ve spilled into Rye Lane now, no longer segregated but have forced their culture into the main streets. We don’t understand this change but we try to, before slowly eloping towards the East, where people look like us and we can be poor together. The library is cultured. The streets are new in Peckham, but the people who needed it don’t reap the benefits.
Where to now? You could try Brixton, the ghetto so infamous that even Americans have heard about it, but the cafes are there too… Hackney and Kennington and Bermondsey and Lewisham are evolving ahead of the money, and leaving the opportunity behind. The residue of National Front, of Neo-Nazism, which everyone left in the sewers from the 70s have resurfaced, washed the working class streets and divided housing estates between black and white. Suspicion is here again, deepening poverty, and all the while a new tribe of white, upper class somebodies demolish one neighbourhood, erect a village, open a cafe, start an independent, and move in. There are Exoduses unfolding all over London, but where should you go? You’re black and you know that outside the M1, that road that hugs the city like a life jacket, separates subtle ignorance; innocent racism, from hate crimes and exclusion.
The cricket test resurfaces. Where is your allegiance? Are you black or are you brown? British or Caribbean? Jamaican or secretly Nigerian? Muslim or Terrorist? Christian or enemy? When did you come to this country and where were you born? How poor are you? How much benefits do you receive? Why are black people not getting into jobs? Where are your aspirations?
You search ancient African texts to find meaning but get suffocated in Ankhs. You try to speak the patois of your parents but they identify you; you want to be British but black people get ashamed of this and white people are cynical. Where are your people? Where do they live?
And then you return to Peckham, to the Yellowbrick Estate, that place of fallen dreams, lost parents and adoptive brothers who sit on walls, or smoke, or think about the things they could do in the other areas but for some reason the postcode forbids them; that place where people come to wander, to die, to write letters to the council to plead against evictions; the people who work just enough to pay for a bus pass; you’re not sure if you would rather be white, black or nothing. It’s all so pitiful and they’re all so alike.
Here are your people. And they don’t only live here, in Yellowbrick, but in Brixton’s Angell Town; in the cramped rat holes in Woolwich that overlook the resting place of the notorious Ferrier Estate, now reincarnated as Kidbrooke Village.
You think, and you wander, before leaving the estates, endz, the Ghetto, for good.